(Editor's note: Normally BSJ doesn't publish stories unless they have a strong New England connection, but BSJ member Ken Hartnett is a veteran newspaperman and this remembrance of a legendary NFL player was very insightful, and good quarantine fodder.)
By Ken Hartnett
Hall of Famer Willie Davis, who died April 15th, might have been the first great black coach in the National Football League. As his life turned out, he never tried his hand at coaching the way teammates like Forrest Gregg did or Bart Starr.
It wasn't that he didn't ever consider it. He did. It was the late 1960's and for Davis, things were very different back then.
It was Davis who led that Packer team, at least the defensive side of it, as his teammates acknowledged. Linebacker Dave Robinson had more flair and Herb Adderley was a warrior and don't forget Ray Nitschke, the hulk in the middle. But Davis was the heart and soul of that team that dominated the league through 1967.
He would have been a Bill Belichick dream of a key defender: intelligent, disciplined with immense talent, ideal size and speed and a character of steel, charm and generosity. He commanded a locker room of stars and bought into the love of the team. He had an aura. Lombardi was feared and respected but Davis was respected and loved. Just watch the old film and see how great he was. He played flawlessly within a scheme as though he owned it. He might as well have; he understood it better than anyone on the team and shared that knowledge with teammates and coaches. Yes, coaches, including Vince Lombardi and Phil Bengtson, defensive coordinator newly turned head coach
Henry Jordan, the right defensive tackle, an ex-Brown, insisted it was he who had strongly recommended Davis to Lombardi. Jordan knew firsthand his abilities and the rare respect his ex-teammate commanded in Cleveland where he was so unhappy he was thinking of playing in Canada.
Lombardi did his due diligence and traded for him in 1960.
Jordan said Davis made the Packer defense work and even helped fashion it because he was more than just a player; he was the player the coaches consulted. He was also the player players consulted. He knew the game inside and out.
So, back in 1968, I decided to write an AP story based on the Davis football smarts and the likelihood that down the road in a year or two, he might turn to putting his own ideas into practice and go into coaching. After all, Bill Russell was already coaching the Boston Celtics. Why not a black football coach?
So, I approached Bengtson who was in his first season as Lombardi's successor.
I began by telling him how everyone knew Davis was a great leader and super smart and knew football in and out and no one was more respected in that locker room. Sure thing, he agreed, presumably thinking I was going to write one of those midweek Packer puff pieces that filled a column or two in Wisconsin papers.
But when I asked whether he'd be a head coach one day, his face froze. He seemed horrified. Is that what you are writing, he asked? Please don't do that to Willie, he said. Don't give him false hopes. I'm sure he's not thinking that way, he said.
His reaction puzzled and bothered me. I didn't mention my conversation with Willie or Henry. I never bothered going upstairs and asking Lombardi after seeing how his successor as coach reacted. I knew he would sputter and rage and say I was being a troublemaker or a subversive. I never went back to Davis about how his coach reacted. I wasn't sure how to explain it to myself, let alone to this thoroughly decent man.
Bengtson was no racist, nor was Lombard. Bengtson was honestly reacting in what he perceived as Willie's interest. Maybe he knew the resistance in the league to the idea of a black coach. They were men of their times. Perhaps the civil rights protests flaming, the urban riots simmering, the murder of Martin Luther King gave them a realistic fear of deepening racial divisions within the team. Coaches were wary of any discussion of the social turmoil. That was just politics and politics were off-limits.
Black players within lily-white Green Bay hewed a strict straight line in Lombardi Green Bay. They lived apart, partied apart, dined apart. At Lambeau, Lombardi treated everyone the same. All players were equal. They were equal outside Packer premisses. Separate but equal. Black players dominated the defense but all the coaching staff was white. It was not a matter of discussion then.
So this became a story I never wrote, putting it aside in favor of far more forgettable articles on a forlorn season. It ranks among the stories I regret having left unwritten and the conversation I never had with Willie about why his coach's reaction.
Maybe Bengtson was right; it would have caused a fuss for no reason, no good purpose. Maybe it would have led to the emotional pain that a coach perceived but not a young reporter But maybe, it would have planted a seed somewhere.
It wasn't until 20 years later that Art Shell became the first NFL head coach of the modern era when Al Davis broke the color line. I wonder what Willie thought when he got the news back in 1989.
I'll never know.
Of course, he likely had no regrets. He built a prosperous business after settling down in Packerland and even sat on the team's board of directors. He died at age 85 after an enviable life.
Ken Hartnett covered the Green Bay Packers for the Associated Press from 1965 through 1968. He became an investigative reporter in Washington in 1969 before joining the staff of the Boston Globe where he headed the urban teams and wrote columns and editorials. He later worked in Boston television , was managing editor of the Boston Herald, editor of Boston Magazine, editor of the Middlesex News and retired as editor of the New Bedford Standard-Times. In retirement, he follows the fortunes of the New England Patriots.